Lera Auerbach (b. 1973)
Milking Darkness
Lonely Suite – Ballet for a Lonely Violinist, Op. 70 (for solo violin) (2002)
Piano Trio No. 4 (2017)
Milking Darkness (for solo piano) (2011)
Three Dances in the Old Style, Op. 54 (for violin and cello) (2000)
Piano Trio No. 3 (2013, rev. 2018)
Delta Piano Trio
rec. 2023, MCO 1 Hilversum, The Netherlands
Challenge Classics CC72963 [70]

This is the second disc of Lera Auerbach’s piano trios I have had the pleasure to review.  The previous one, contained her first and second trios, performed by the Delta Piano Trio (review). The CD under review demonstrates other sides of Auerbach, as well, and should appeal to those following her career and anyone seriously interested in contemporary music.

In addition to the piano trios, both of which are listed as world premieres, there are works for solo violin, solo piano, and violin/cello duo.  The programme begins with the solo piano Lonely Suite with the subtitle, “Ballet of a Lonely Violinist.” Simone Leuven in the disc’s notes describes it as exploring “the state of being lonely, the music reflecting a recognisable and unsettling condition.”  While not music for an actual ballet, each of its six sections has an illustrative title, such as the first movement’s “Dancing with Oneself.”  This is a slow, stilted waltz with the employment of both pizzicato and glissando.  The second movement, “Boredom” can be a bit tedious with its repetition of the Frère Jacques-like refrain of octave and fifth.  “No Escape,” the third section, is rather abrasive and reminds me of Arvo Pärt’s writing for the violin.  The fourth movement, “Imaginary Dialogue,” on the other hand, is beautifully lyrical and tonal.  This contrasts with “Worrisome Thought,” with some percussive clicks and repeated notes.  The finale, “Question,” leaves the listener with quite a feeling of loneliness, as it contains three notes repeated over and over and then just dying away.  Although the work leaves a positive impression, it would have been helpful to see a video to know just how violinist Gerard Spronk accomplishes the varied percussive effects of the piece.

Where I found the Lonely Suite rather easy to appreciate, Milking Darkness for piano solo left the opposite impression.  It starts with powerful cluster chords in the lower register and high single notes.  The work is dissonant, alternately aggressive and mysterious.  Auerbach seems to love loud passages with low piano chords, resonating with the sustain pedal held down.  Leuven notes that the “blackness” in the work is “all-encompassing.”  I found its ten-minute length tiresome.  The brief Three Dances in the Old Style, on the other hand, are a nice break from Milking Darkness.  They are folkish and tonal, but interesting in their use of sul ponticello and glissando.  The violin and cello complement each other well, and the work’s melodies create an eighteenth-century atmosphere. 

The most substantial works on the disc are the piano trios.  The Piano Trio No. 3 is in four movements and lasts over 26 minutes, whereas the Trio No. 4 is in a single movement of 18+ minutes.  Like its predecessor on the earlier disc, the Third Trio impressed me most of the music on this CD.  It encompasses a broad range of moods, the movements being marked Grandioso, Andante libero, Adagio religioso, and Allegro brutale.  It commences ferociously with sonorous chords in the lower register with bell-like notes in the treble range before becoming quiet and mysterious.  Then it gets really animated and rhythmic with all three instruments going at it.  Auerbach employs sul ponticello in this movement, too—perhaps one of her favourite devices.  The second movement opens with a loud cluster chord by the pianist left to resonate before the ensemble introduces a slow waltz, which on the violin sounds like a musical saw!  This waltz continues with the strings slipping and sliding, as well as plucking, creating a sensation of seasickness.  Contrasting this is a hymn or prayer that begins the slow movement and provides some relief in its quietness and meditation, though it too builds up a head of steam before it once again settles down and concludes softly with string tremolos.  The finale lives up to its designation, but, besides being brutal, has a memorable march-like first subject, after which it turns lyrical.  This does not last and the music is again noisy, only to stop for a long pause before becoming quiet and eerie.  The loud, jerky march or “proud dance,” as Leuven describes it, of the beginning returns a couple of minutes before the work concludes softly on the violin followed by powerful dissonant chords.  There is much to digest in this trio, but it shows Auerbach at the top of her game as a composer of chamber music.

I found the Piano Trio No. 4 much harder to like.  It is unremittingly bleak and dark.  Auerbach views it as a kind of requiem.  As Leuven notes, “it opens with the ringing of a funeral chime in D minor,” played pizzicato on the cello followed by the piano.  The trio does contain some more lyrical music, but overall leaves a rather dour impression with its long single-movement duration.  This takes nothing away from the extraordinary performance by the three musicians, who collaborated with the composer to make the recording.  Thus, one may consider it as authoritative.  There is enough variety in the programme, even with its predominant darkness, to make it a worthy addition to the Auerbach discography.  The recorded sound itself is exemplary.

Leslie Wright

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Performers: Gerard Spronk (violin), Irene Enzlin (cello), Vera Kooper (piano)